The picture above was painted by the Drogheda, County Louth artist Bernard Tumalti in 1844. It shows the interior as it then was of the town’s principal church, St Peter’s and therefore serves as an invaluable record of how the building looked before it was subjected to a number of changes later in the century. Among the most significant of these was the removal of the box pews in 1865 and the insertion of stained glass in many of the windows, not least that the great east window which dates from the following decade. At some point also the handsome line of hanging brass candelabra shown by Tumalti were also lost, another misfortune. As a result of these and other alterations to the church, its original character is no longer as easily discernible, not least the element of baroque theatricality that was manifestly intended as part of the design and which must have transformed services into performances.
St Peter’s has likely been the site of worship for as long as there has been a settlement in Drogheda. Situated just three miles from the mouth of the river Boyne, this is said to be the place where St Patrick landed in c.432 and a little over 850 years later the Norman knight Hugh de Lacy built a motte and bailey on the existing Viking fort. Not far away St Peter’s was established by de Lacy and given to Welsh Augustinian canons. It subsequently grew – as did Drogheda – to be one of the largest churches in the country and although various changes were made to the structure, St Peter’s survived relatively intact until the town was besieged by Oliver Cromwell in September 1649. Many citizens took refuge inside the church, but to no avail as it was set on fire and, after the occupants had been massacred, subjected to looting. Nevertheless enough of the medieval St Peter’s survived for it to continued in use as a centre of worship for another century.
According to the Vestry Minute Book, ‘In the Year one thousand seven hundred and Forty Eight, The old Parisk Church of Saint Peters Drogheda being in ruinous Condition and in danger of falling was Order’d to be pulled down which was done accordingly and a New Church begun to be Built in the room of the old one the same Year and Carry’d on ‘till finish’d by the Several Contributions Subscribed and pay’d by the undernamed Persons, And a Cess [levy] of Three Hundred Pounds only lay’d upon the said Parish.’ The new St Peter’s is believed to have been designed by Hugh Darley, member of a family which across more than two centuries worked as builders, stone cutters and architects. Hugh Darley’s best-known building is Trinity College Dublin’s Dining Hall erected in the early 1760s to replace Richard Castle’s earlier hall which had twice collapsed during construction and was eventually demolished after its vaults fell in while an adjacent kitchen was being built. The entry on St Peter’s in The Buildings of North Leinster by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan, having described the church as one of the best of its kind from the 18th century notes the handsome Palladian facade. This is of ‘three bays and two storeys of limestone ashlar, horizontally channelled, with a broad eaves pediment broken by the great central tower rising above it through two storeys. The tower is expressed as a giant round-headed entrance, a terse Diocletian window in the first floor and in the belfry stage corner pilasters, a round-headed opening, and above a Gibbsian bracketed oculus. Above all this rises a Gothic steeple added by Francis Johnston in the 1780s.’ The exterior of St Peter’s is austere and devoid of superfluous decoration. This makes the extravagance of its interior all the more surprising.
The interior of St Peter’s is classical in design, a long hall with galleries along the west, north and south sides carried on octagonal oak piers: these are continued on the upper level as Ionic columns. The surprise comes when one looks east to the chancel, the walls of which are smothered in elaborate plasterwork featuring garlands of fruit and flowers, cornucopiae, clouds and hovering above it all birds (possibly intended to represent eagles) with their wings spread wide. More late baroque than rococo in spirit, the chancel’s north and south walls are embellished with intricate plasterwork frames surrounding a pair of funerary monuments, one to Alderman Francis Leigh (d.1778), the other to the Rev. John Magee (d.1837). Both were evidently inserted some decades after the decoration had been completed and it remains a matter of conjecture who might have been responsible for this piece of bravura craftsmanship. Stylistic comparisons have been made between the plasterwork of St Peter’s and that in the drawing and dining rooms of Russborough, County Wicklow. Other parts of that house, most notably the saloon, have always been attributed to the Swiss-born Lafranchini brothers, Paolo and Filippo, who from the late 1730s onwards worked extensively in Ireland. However the character of Russborough’s drawing and dining rooms is more robust than that of the saloon, and it was art historian Joseph McDonnell in his 1991 book Irish Eighteenth Century Stuccowork and its European Sources who drew attention to the similarities between the decoration of these spaces and the church in Drogheda. McDonnell came up with the concept of ‘the St Peter’s stuccodore’ and more recently the same individual has also been credited with the plasterwork found in Glasnevin House, County Dublin. Across all these buildings the same vigorous ebullience is on display, suggesting the hand of someone who, like the Lafranchinis, came here from continental Europe.
The chancel’s plasterwork indicates little concern with the religious and indeed seems more suited to a domestic setting: while it lifts the spirits, they are not necessarily raised above the temporal. A certain effort has been made to remind the congregation that it is present for devotional purposes: in the plasterwork above the east window is a small panel bearing an inscription in Hebrew from Isaiah and translated as ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Hosts’ and the open volumes that feature on either side are presumably intended to represent the gospels or some other scriptural text. But St Peter’s, in its original incarnation, must have borne more than a passing resemblance to the theatre: this is religion as drama, with the chancel substituting for stage and the main body of the building for auditorium. At least one of the other funerary monuments celebrates this ambiguity, that to the immediate south which celebrates Henry Singleton, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland and Master of the Rolls who died in 1759: his memorial features an oval plaque in which a woman weeps over an urn, putti supporting an inscription and a portrait bust of the man himself sculpted by Thomas Hickey. As though conscious of the possibility for confusion between the sacred and profane, Hugh Darley designed the great east window in the gothic idiom, thereby leading the mind back to matters devotional. And that aspect was further accentuated by the reordering of the church over the course of the second half of the 19th century, notably the removal of the box pews (not unlike theatre boxes) and the insertion of stained glass into many of the windows. The effect was to play down the secular element, even if this was to the detriment of the decoration. St Peter’s remains a wonderful building and unquestionably among the very best churches erected here in the post-Reformation era. But imagine how much better it must have looked when painted by Bernard Tumalti in 1844.